Brothers in independence: Notre Dame's presence at playoff talks may help BYU football

Published: Friday, June 22 2012 10:24 p.m. MDT

BYU's Jonny Harline makes a TD catch against Notre Dame in 2005.

Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News

Editor's note: This is the first in a four-part series examining the relationship between BYU and Notre Dame and the impending start of a six-game football series between the Cougars and the Fighting Irish. Today: How Notre Dame's future could impact BYU in conference realignment. Read Part 2. Read part 3.

PROVO — Once again, as always, Notre Dame is the biggest piece, and biggest prize, of college football's conference realignment puzzle.

As one of only a few of independent programs — along with BYU — the Fighting Irish have stood alone for decades.

But due to the rapidly changing landscape of college football, will Notre Dame abandon that longstanding tradition and join a conference? Or will the Irish continue as an independent? And how will Notre Dame's ultimate decision affect BYU?

The Cougars seem to have an ally in its move to independence in the Irish, evidenced by the six-game series in football that starts this fall (Oct. 20) with a game in South Bend, Ind.

When BYU announced its intentions to go independent, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick eagerly embraced that bold move.

"Independence is not for everybody, but they certainly fit the profile of an institution for whom it probably does make great sense — frankly, in the same way it still does for Army and Navy," Swarbrick told the Chicago Tribune about BYU. "All the schools currently in that category have some common characteristics — national profile, strong history and traditions that are important to honor. BYU adds to that, as I think Notre Dame has, media access (BYU has partnered with ESPN, while Notre Dame has a contract with NBC). Not everybody can produce on their own. It certainly looks like a smart move, from where I sit."

It should be noted that earlier this year Navy did accept an invitation to play football in the Big East beginning in 2015. At the time, Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk told ESPN.com that "opportunities to exist as independents into the future are clearly in jeopardy," so independence isn't for everyone.

So how long will Notre Dame remain independent?

For now, the Irish seem determined to stay the course, but if the new college football postseason format, which is scheduled to change in January 2014, features only conference champions, Notre Dame — and BYU — could be left on the outside looking in.

At that point, Notre Dame and BYU could be searching for a league affiliation. Because of its tradition, fan base and power, the Irish could join any conference it chooses.

Big 12 officials have stated that they are not looking at expansion for now, but if Notre Dame decided that it wanted in, it would happen.

As Oklahoma State president Burns Hargis said recently, "Notre Dame is a brand like no other. If they had some interest, it's something we ought to consider."

Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds told CBSSports.com that the league has had discussions with the Irish since 2010 about having their Olympic sports move out of the Big East and compete in the Big 12.

"Notre Dame has options," said Dodds, who is a good friend of Swarbrick. "I think they love their position. I certainly think they can continue to do what they're doing and do it well and be a major player. But they have options."

As for BYU's options, could the Cougars join the Big 12 as a football-only school? Or does BYU join the Big East? The Cougars have had conversations with both the Big 12 and the Big East, and the Big East extended an invitation to BYU last fall. Notre Dame's basketball team and Olympic sports play in the Big East, which has experienced major changes, and instability, in recent months.

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